Liberia: Making A Mockery Out Of Adoption
Liberia: Making A Mockery Out Of Adoption
Thursday, April 23, 2009
By J. Eben Daygbor
This article seeks to look at the issue affecting the Liberian Child within a broader migration framework that deals specifically with child trafficking. Throughout the article, this author shall propose some tangible and practical suggestions, which could be effective in addressing the misconceptions of trafficking in Liberia, and discuss ways of preventing human rights violations which children are so often subjected to.
Over the past year, Liberia has taken center stage in international debate on issues regarding inter-country adoption. Even though the concerns raised in international circles had to do with the migration of children across international borders, it also opened a much needed and overdue debate on the treatment, protection and internal movement of children in the country. The debate centered on a study by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which says that the plight of children in Liberia is desperate. The study also found that all of Africa's 53 nations reported human trafficking, spurred by poverty, armed conflict, and instability, as well as traditional practices, such as early marriage which allow girls as young as 13 years of age to be taken as brides for their purity.
Although the increased attention to children issues in Liberia was precipitated by published UN reports, it also draws into question without reservations the inadequate protection of children and safeguarding of their basic rights. Many children in Liberia incessantly fall through the cracks without any organized government effort to reduce their burden. Children are exploited in many ways without redress. Prostitution, child labor and poverty impede the chances of children succeeding in Liberia. For this reason, thousands of Liberian children have either been abandoned or given up for adoption by their birth parents because they cannot satisfactorily care for or protect them. For instance, children as young as eight years of age are seen selling on the street without attending school. In many cases, preschool is a luxury many ordinary parents cannot afford for their children.
Many very young children are seen all hours of the night on the streets of many urban or peri-urban center seeking shelter, food and protection not from the government but from total strangers. For example: peek into any Monrovia hotel today and chances are you’ll find a middle-aged man with a teenage girl sitting across the table from him having lunch or drinks. The question then becomes, are we preventing our children from being adopted or are we leaving them to become prey to perverts or pedophiles. So this author wants to know, what are our options? Are we in Liberia arguing the lesser of two evils? Or are we selecting a lifestyle of prostitution, street selling over adoption, a better education, healthcare, and a career?
Poverty and severe economic conditions cause many parents to abandon their children into dilapidated orphanages, hoping for a better future for their children or at least equal access to opportunity. For instance, this author would dare to call the reader’s attention to the quandary of vexing children’s issues existing in Liberia such as malnutrition, infant and maternal mortality, preventable child illnesses and inadequate sanitation, public health and educational facilities, which traps children into second class citizens thereby hampering national economic development and growth. Also, this author would add that these stringent social and economic conditions cause many thousands of children to end up on street corners peddling cheap goods dumped on the market, while others simply beg for loose change on street corners to eat one square meal.
Realizing these colossal challenges to the Liberian Child, the President of Liberia, Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appointed an advisory commission to study and review our domestic laws regarding the plight of the Liberian child, with particular reference to our archaic adoption laws. This review was intended to be wide-ranging. The committee’s recommendations were projected to set national standards; implement international principles; and develop policies to protect the rights of the Liberian child. But, one crucial area which the President’s mandate completely ignored deals with our system of foster care giving, which includes our traditional ‘ward’ and ‘pawn’ systems. These systems are caused by repression, discrimination, and lack of equal access to basic services and opportunity which suffocates many innocent Liberian children. Migration of the Liberian child in all of its manifestations is not caused merely by poverty and war, but rather, by the treatment and protection granted each child in our society.
The President’s effort to deal with children’s issues in a meaningful and comprehensive manner is a good thing and must be applauded by every Liberian. Her sincere attempts to effectively restructure national policy to protect the human rights of children are noble and well-intentioned. Every Liberian including this author will continue to pray for those efforts to be successful, especially when the desired outcome remains purging corruption, developing oversight regimes, protecting the rights of children and sheltering the entire process from bureaucratic extortion. This author agrees with the President emphatically that our children are our country’s most precious resource; hence, issues regarding their welfare, treatment, security, safety, protection and rights ought to be regarded as sacred. However, since its inception, the Presidential Advisory Commission has chosen to focus only on inter-country adoption and not deal with demoralizing and seriously burning issues regarding the social, economic and cultural life of the Liberian child.
Inter-country adoptions for the most part makes the most sensational headlines and draw the most controversy in a country where the literacy rate is as low as 20 percent, and where it is all too easy to contaminate public opinion and cloud vital national issues simply to score political points. So, let’s now examine the real issue regarding inter-country adoption in Liberia. Adoption by itself is a genuine human need and a noble action that gives an orphan or poverty stricken child a loving family, with unbridled comfort and a productive future. Inter-country adoption is not robbing Liberia of its greatest natural resource, or rescuing children from Liberia, but rather it is rescuing children for Liberia by providing resources and opportunities not currently available to them, as our country works through this period of rebuilding and restoration after 20 years of unending social dislocation and chronic economic devastation.
Many of the individuals on the Presidential Advisory Commission openly oppose inter-country adoption, even when it is conducted legally by organizations like the West African Children support Network. Many of the individuals on the Commission simply have problem with white people adopting black children because of their own experience in the United States. This behavior is certainly a disadvantage to our country. We cannot get to the place where President Sirleaf is trying to take us as a people with this kind of mindset. For example, a Liberia father with four boys placed three of his sons in the WACSN adoption program after his wife died in childbirth leaving this poor farmer father at a total lost to care for his sons. The three boys were processed for adoption by WACSN.
After completing all paperwork in compliance with Liberian Adoption Laws, which included the granting of a decree by the Probate Court, the children were then approved for adoption by the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare. An independent investigation of the biological parents was conducted by the US Embassy; thereby allowing WACSN to put in place its customary practice, of inviting the adopting parents to Liberia to spend three weeks to bond with the children. A required interview with the US Embassy was scheduled to complete the adoption process. After a successful interview, the three Liberian children were then issued a visa for travel to the United States by the US Embassy. After being cleared by Liberian Immigration at the Roberts International Airport, the three children were then stopped with their adoptive parents from boarding the plane by a Liberian government official who insisted that another clearance for departure was required before departing Liberia. In this process, the children were denied travel to America, while their adoptive parents looked on and felt insulted, embarrassed, and belittled.
A sad end to this story of the three boys now ends in a tragedy, with their future compromised and their father left in a bewilderment. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare illegally removed them from the WACSN Compound without a court order and placed them with street children at the Don Bosco Home. Keep in mind that many of these children have been in WACSN’s care for the past three to five years attending private school and being cared for by doctors at the Saint Joseph Catholic Hospital. The tragedy of this situation is the adoptive parent in America has said that they do not want to adopt the children any longer because of the behavior of government officials.
So, inquiring minds want to know what is the bottom line regarding inter-country adoption in Liberia? Is it child trafficking when a child is given to a family not related by blood as their own of which the child is entitled to all privileges belonging to a natural born-child, including the right of inheritance? Or, is it the adoption fees, which is used for feeding, upkeep, legal, medical and educational expenses, not to mention the processing of all appropriate paperwork? This author should add that even the great United States and all advanced countries charge fees for their adoption process as there is expense involved in all the legal process and appropriate paperwork to help perspective adopted children have an opportunity to education, health care, and a career not to mention a family? Or in Liberia, is it really a question of who gets the money as suggested by our two officials from the Ministry of Health at the Department of Social Welfare who believes that adoption fees should be paid directly to the Department of Social Welfare?
If one were to examine child trafficking against this backdrop and definition, given the prevailing view of the plight of the Liberian child, that this author has defined, one could say, instead of developing appropriate strategies on how to get Liberian children out of this penury trap of disease, poverty and economic suffocation, the Presidential Advisory Commission along with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare has opted to hoodwink the process and engage in illusory practices to dupe the Liberian people.
Liberian children desperately need the protecting of their government not the strong arm tactic being demonstrated by overzealous bureaucrats’ desperately seeking attention and recognition of the president. If Liberia is to become serious about the issue of child trafficking, then the country must eradicate abusive forms of work, exploitation, sexual abuse of children and the worst forms of child labor. Child trafficking is the recruitment, transport, transfer, harboring or receipt of children by means of threat of coercion, or by the giving or receiving of payment or benefits to achieve the control over children for the purpose of exploitation.
Our country has enormous problems that would take numerous pages to enumerate all, yet those on the Presidential Advisory Commission have taken unto themselves to selectively target innocent children who have no voice of their own simply to play politics with their lives. Many of the children targeted are being removed from children centers in a dehumanizing manner and forced into substandard and inadequate care. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare does not have the capacity to deal with children in this respect. However, when one listens to the argument being promulgated by the Presidential Advisory Commission, one could immediately conclude that the entire exercise is a campaign of intentional disinformation meant to mislead our international partners and the Liberian people.
The argument being presented by those at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare is bogus and nonfactual. First, they present adoption as nothing more than child trafficking, which is absolutely not true. Secondly, they would have us believe that Liberian children are being flown out of the country in droves without proper procedures being followed. This is utterly not the case and has never been the case in our history with inter-country adoption. Third, they present our urban, peri-urban, and rural areas as complete with regards to the treatment and protection of children. But, when one look closely, it quickly becomes obvious that many Liberian children are suffering from a host of easily preventable diseases and lack of basic services.
This author would readily admit that the problems of children in Liberia grow worse day-by-day, and successive generations are coming of age under conditions their ancestors could never have imagined. Disease, abject poverty and terrible economic conditions trap many Liberian children into an awful social conundrum. Children account for half of the poor in Liberia. Many live at subsistence levels fraught with poor environment, education and health care. Consequently, the single greatest obstacle to the advancement of children in Liberia is poverty. One in four Liberian children lives in extreme poverty. According to the United Nations Child’s Fund (UNICEF) Liberia has the third highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. Thirty-seven percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, which causes chronic stunting in nearly one-third of Liberian children. One in five children in Liberia is underweight thereby hampering economic development and growth.
Does the President really believe that those in the Department of Social Welfare speak in her best interest? They certainly do not speak for the Liberian people. Being left alone to define and interpret the adoption laws of Liberia without accountability is extremely dangerous, incommodious and detrimental to our country’s image. Is there no oversight in the Ministry of Health than to allow these functionaries to distort the image of our beloved country by politicizing the lives of innocent children many of whom have been abandoned by their birth parents or orphaned after 20 years of vicious social dislocation and brutal civil war? With all due respect, functionaries in the Ministry of Health at the Department of Social Welfare are not qualify to speak solely on pertinent national issues regarding the social development of the Liberian Child let alone be allowed to have the final saying on issue such as the social rearing, nurturing and fostering of our children. Let’s be reminded that Children are our planet’s most precious resource. They represent our hopes, dreams and future. Every Liberian bears a sacred trust and responsibility for their protection, growth and development. Whenever we can, every Liberian child should be given equal access to opportunity and resources not available here. Families who adopt from America show the generous spirit of the United States.
This author believes that every child desires a permanent and prosperous home fill with love and happiness, and whenever American parents adopt a child to love as their own, lives are forever changed. Be reminded that the decision to adopt a child from Liberia is among life's greatest and happiest turning points for many. Every Liberian child adopted will have opportunities many of us take for granted such as education, health care, and family. Generally, Liberia has the natural resource to lift herself out of poverty into a life of peace, prosperity and dignity. But, due to war, disease, abject poverty and terrible economic conditions, even those children lucky enough to find a place in an orphanage have no real hope for any kind of a future. Let’s face it; adoption is to give hope and the possibility to face the future for those of our children born into a difficult reality of poverty, disease and hopelessness. From the vantage point of this author, adoption is an effective means to combat malnutrition and illiteracy, and to help our children grow in a dignified manner.
The government cannot and will not provide for all the children needing care in Liberia. Private orphanages and adoption agencies fill a need that the government should. One hopes that the government would support these agencies like the West African Children Support Network (WACSN) instead of putting impediments in their way, as is currently the case with the Presidential Advisory Commission charged with restructuring adoption laws and protocols of Liberia. The Commission’s direction of using the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to harass institutions like WACSN is not Liberian. Does the Presidential Advisory Commission really not get it that the "external family structures" in Liberia is just about gone? Our extended family structure have been dying off for the past twenty years at an ever-increasing rate and leaving nothing in its place. The civil war did more to destroy that process and tradition. Henceforth, it's all well and good for those on the Presidential Advisory Commission to say that the "best idea is to strengthen family structures and discourage the institutionalizing of orphans", but is saying it enough to put food in the mouths of hungry Liberia kids now? Do the ideas they have proposed provide children the necessary protection from harsh social, economic and environmental elements? The Presidential Advisory Commission focus should be the protection of the Liberian Child, from mistreatment, neglect and abuse irrespective of their status as orphans, vulnerable young adults or those that are well-off.
Our country’s natural resources have not helped us at all to register the necessary economic growth and development which should have brought about a fundamental and meaningful improvement in the standards of living of the majority of our people. More than three quarter of our people now live in absolute poverty; rural life is at subsistence level fraught with poor education and health care systems, and urban living has been extremely difficult with lack of basic services, employment and skill. Since the adoption of the UN Millennium Declaration and the pledge of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day and suffering from hunger by 2015, June 16th is now also a day to examine the level at which the Millennium Development Goals are benefiting the Liberian Child. For example, children in Liberia are more likely to be ill, less likely to be in school and far more likely to die before the age of five than children in Europe and North America. Members of the Presidential Advisory Commission need to ask themselves why in fact are these things happening in Liberia today?
The Presidential Advisory Commission needs to review its tactics and flaw strategies in protecting our most precious resource. They must understand that poverty is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon that extends far beyond income. In so doing, they should realize that the active participation of children in civil society is vital to making critical changes that can help end poverty in Liberia. Despite our levels of poverty and recent history of conflicts, crime, open sewer, unsafe drinking water, clogged drainage and stockpiles of untreated garbage, relatively few children end up as candidates for inter-country adoption. For instance, according to the U.S. State Department, adoption to America from Liberia accounted for the following: 2004 = 86 children; 2005 = 183 children; 2006 = 353 children; 2007 = 314 children; 2008 = 249 children.
The way this author understands it, in a period of five years, a total of 1,185 children we adopted to the United States from all six Liberian adoption agencies as well as private adoptions from churches, families and other institutions. Seriously then, out of 3.9 million Liberians, of which one million are children, is the fuss really about 1,185 Liberian Children being adopted to white American families in 5 years? Or is it something else that deals with politics and money? Which is it? Better yet, is this the kind of legacy we want to leave for our children? This very successful political dispensation begun with the election of Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as President is a worthwhile experiment with democracy and respect for the rule of law that we cannot afford to trash. Many ordinary Liberians give their lives for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in order that she might rescue our country from the grip of tyranny, dictatorship and a criminal empire.
J. Eben Daygbor, can be reached atebendaygbor@... /Cell: 001.231.644.9267
2009 Apr 23